Learning From Arab Jews

Guest Column: David Shasha, the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York, is one of my favorite weekly email reads. (You can subscribe, too, by contacting him directly.) Arab and Jew are not mutually exclusive categories. Quite the contrary. Anyone who tells you, as so many “pundits” do in this society when trying to explain the Middle East, that “Jews and Arabs have been fighting for thousands of years,” is speaking from ignorance. The idea of a conflict between “Jews” and “Arabs” is really only as old as modern political Zionism, and really only took on a generalized form in the second half of the 20th century amid the trauma that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel. Jews and Arabs had, in fact, lived together for hundreds of years in the Muslim world, and many Jews have always considered themselves Arab.

David Shasha makes the case that this branch of Judaism, what he calls the “Levantine Option”, is tragically silenced and excluded from the mainstream Ashkenazi and Zionist narrative that dominates discussion of the Jewish experience. He argues that while the Ashkenazi tradition was both heavily influenced by Western Christian traditions and also, because of persecution, evolved a far more narrow, insular “shtetl” outlook on Jewish identity. By contrast, he argues, the Sephardic experience, in the “convivienca” of Moorish Spain and the Arab lands in the Islamic golden age actually has much more to offer Jews looking for an expansive, universalist version of their identity in a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan world. It’s fascinating stuff: Read on!

A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”
By: David Shasha

Jewish ethnicity breaks down into two basic groups: Sephardic Jews, from Arab-Islamic lands in the Southern Mediterranean; and Ashkenazic Jews, from Christian Europe in the North. Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization.

The movement of Jews out of the Arab world has greatly disrupted the bearings of Sephardic Jewry. A combination of anti-Arab sentiment propounded in Zionism and the shift in Jewish ethnicity in the United States away from the first American Jews — who were Sephardic, but who gave way to the successive waves of Ashkenazi immigrants beginning in the late 19th century — has eclipsed the rich culture and civilization of the Sephardim to the point where it is currently unknown and inaccessible.

Such a state of affairs is a great shame because this culture, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the issues that we now face as American Jews; issues of assimilation, cultural alienation and a general sense of malaise and dysfunction.

America remains an open and pluralistic culture much as medieval Arab civilization was – a place where people are free to worship and believe as they wish. As licit members of Muslim society Jews were once free to adapt their culture to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam.

Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), disdained clericalism while espousing humanism and science, tying parochially Jewish concerns to a wider universalistic understanding of Man and the World.

Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else. Samuel the Nagid (993-1056), the famous polymath of Granada, even led military troops into battle in 11th century Andalusia.

While Ashkenazi Jews in the post-Enlightenment period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions over how to deal with Modernity, Sephardim, true to “The Levantine Option,” remained united rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them and tear their communities apart as had been the case in Europe. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in.
Sephardic Judaism was founded on the brilliant idea of Religious Humanism, a conception of Jewish civilization that integrated Jewish ritual practice with the humanistic legacy of Greco-Roman civilization. Religious Humanism is not a forced grafting of two incompatible ways of seeing, or a questioning of Jewish tradition, but an organic union of the human sciences with the sacred traditions of Judaism.

“The Levantine Option” was brought to the United States at the very inception of the republic: Jews living in Charleston, South Carolina, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and various other port cities linked Jews to one another along the Atlantic coast(s) under the rubric of a shared civilization centuries old.
It was this connectivity that animated the first decades of Jewish life in America along the lines of the Sephardic model until the later Eastern European immigration took place at the beginning of the 20th century.

Arthur Kiron has described this now-forgotten Sephardic “Haskalah” in his eye-opening article “An Atlantic Jewish Republic of Letters” (Jewish History issue 20 (2006), pp. 171-211):
A circum-Atlantic network of Jewish publishers, authors and translators living in three port cities, London, Philadelphia, and Kingston, Jamaica became increasingly visible during the 1840s articulating these rhetorical strategies in print. This group can be considered a distinct sub-culture distinguished by the following features. The main actors were printers and preachers, merchants and professionals. They adopted English as their primary language of communication.

Sephardic history informed their self-understandings and manner of worship. They defended the binding character of rabbinic tradition, the oral law, and Jewish ritual observances (proscriptive dietary regulations, the keeping of the Sabbath, and other holiday festivals and customs).

They actively opposed Jewish religious reformers and Christian missionaries. They were involved in the emancipation arguments of their respective lands of relative political toleration and social inclusion. In short, they produced and circulated vernacular reading materials to promote a Victorian version of “Jewish enlightenment in an English key,” as David Ruderman has recently called it.

These individuals and their collective efforts fashioned a new, refined version of enlightened observant Jewish existence that comported with the English-speaking Victorian cultural orbit in which they lived.</blockquote>

Central to the development of this Sephardic Levantine Judaism was the figure of Rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia (1823-1897), the founder of the original Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, who was a towering but now sadly forgotten figure in the changing orbit of American Jewry.

Morais exemplified in his demeanor and his teachings the values of thrift, humility, devotion, justice, integrity and many other important ethical concepts – particularly what Morais called in his native Italian <i>abnegazione,</i> the sense of self-sacrifice that we all recall from our Mediterranean grandparents, an innate and intense part of the Levantine heritage. All these traits Morais inherited from his Sephardi forbears.
Not for Morais the starkly doctrinal polemics of the Ashkenazim who sought to eviscerate the traditions of Sephardic Humanism from two diametrically opposed poles: There was on the one hand the development of a Reform Judaism which sought to gut the entire ritual framework of Judaism by establishing a new form of Judaism aiming to abandon the actual praxis of the traditional Jewish rituals seeking in vain to maintain the core meaning of those rituals. At the other extreme there was the development of a new Jewish fundamentalism along the lines of the famous pronouncements of the Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) which continue to animate the polemical spirit of American Jewish Orthodoxy that saw any signs of innovation as anathema. Sofer quoted the Talmudic dictum “He-hadash asur min ha-Torah” – the Torah prohibits the new – to justify his reactionary posture.

What if the future of the American Judaism lay in the amicable interaction of Judaism with its surrounding culture in a symbiotic formation that lays out commonalities with the host culture rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

If such a symbiosis were desirable, the memory of Moorish Spain where the three monotheistic religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would surely take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what was termed <i>Convivencia,</i> the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its collapse in 1492.

“The Levantine Option” would help collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the various internal conflicts that continue to divide American Jews. In many ways American Jewish Orthodoxy has continued to articulate the values of European Judaism’s sense of the <i> Shtetl </i>mentality with a majority of American Jews simply turning off to this alienating approach to Jewish tradition and history.

Until we develop ways to understand Jewish tradition in such an enlightened and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – it is altogether possible that American Judaism will continue to be fragmented and divided among its sects. “The Levantine Option” is a means for Jews to reintegrate themselves into a harmony that would strengthen Jewish life and its relationship to its surrounding environment

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27 Responses to Learning From Arab Jews

  1. This is lovely, thank you. I am reminded of the work of critic and professor Ella Shohat.

  2. gess says:


  3. FredJ says:

    “Jews and Arabs have been fighting for thousands of years,”

    I have never heard anyone say this. I have never heard of anyone who wrote this. Yet these words may exist somewhere. Google found 5 web sites. Out of a zillion web sites in the world. There are probably more flat-earthers than people who believe this.

    I do know some Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews in the US and Israel. They are not more friendly to the Palestinians than the rest. Some have a positive attitude toward the old Ottoman empire, though. Deep in the West Bank “Settlements” there are both Askenazi and Sephardic Jews, and I have been to Sephardic synagogues out there.

    And I personally know many “Arab Jews” who live in Israel. They rarely refer to themselves as Arab, though. More than half the Jews in Israel came from the Arab/Persian world. It’s no mystery and they aren’t rare.

  4. Leon Hadar says:

    I enjoy your piece and agree with many of the points that you made. But your introduction and other parts of your article in which you suggest that Sephardic Jews are “from Arab-Islamic lands in the Southern Mediterranean” is inaccurate and very misleading. Sepharadic Jews include Jews who settled in Greece (including my family) and the Balkans and other parts of Europe, including England, and who spoke (or speak) Ladino, and some who had settled in North Africa and parts of Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, the early Sepharadic-Jewish community in the U.S. originated in Europe and not in the Middle East. At the same time, Jews from Iraq, Iran and Yemen (not to mention Afghanistan and Central Asia) are not “Sepharadim,” that is, they are not descendents from Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula.

  5. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Excellent post. Very informative.

    (Tony: The html is broken: is converted into <i&gt so it does not get interpreted as html.)

  6. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Except in the comment, where it does.
    (See how my text switched to italics.)

  7. Hanna Elias says:

    What’s important in the article is the fact that Jew and Arabs lives together for hundreds of years and without pogroms and a holocoust. That tells a lot about the ewprerssion of such relations. The intoruction of Zionism to the forula did succeed to change some perceptions of the Arab jews who moved ot Israel. A lot fo this is based on fear that should have been avoided by the Arab leader. The Arab Jews were citizens fo those countires that they mostly escaped of retributions of the Arabs against the Zionists in Plaestine then. Well, these Arab leaders were represening Great Britian and many are still doing the same today for Britian and other non Arab countires. When Arabs and Jews understands their history, they will reach a point that byond all politics and differences, they need to set dozn and listen to one another and promote co existance. Only with that approach we can reach a possible peace.

  8. Y. Ben_David says:

    This posting by Mr Shasha is better described as political propaganda than a serious discussion of Sefardic history. I live in Israel and the only Sefardic Jews who consider themselves “Arab Jews” are a small band of embittered hyperethnic Sefardim who despise (rightly or wrongly) perceived slights from the secular Ashkenazic Establishment, or Communists like Sami Michael who remember the “good old days” in Baghdad when the small number of Jewish and Arab Communists would sit in coffeehouses and make up ideologies, while Michael ignored the Farhud massacre of Jews in 1941.

    Mr Shasha stated:
    Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), disdained clericalism while espousing humanism and science, tying parochially Jewish concerns to a wider universalistic understanding of Man and the World.

    This comment clearly shows that Mr Shasha has not read much of the RAMBAM (Maimonides). I suggest he read his “Letter to Yemen” to see what he thinks of Arab and Muslim “tolerance”. I have no idea what he means by the RAMBAM “didaining clericalism”.

    While it is true that there weren’t pogroms and massacres in the Arab/Muslim world like there were in Europe, the “Golden Age” in Spain was mostly a myth. It is true that there were, here and there “good rulers” who were tolerant (and, as such were considered “bad rulers” by their Muslim subjects) and allowed the Jews to prosper, but this would usually be followed by a less tolerant ruler who felt he had to balance things. Don’t forget the RAMBAM was forced out of Spain and Morocco by MUSLIM rulers.

    The fact is that Sefardic Jews in Israel who lived under Arab/Muslim rule are much more suspicious of the Arab world than the Ashkenazim.
    They do not consider themselves “Arab Jews”.
    So much for that myth.

  9. Shlomo says:

    I’m not sure we agree regarding the Spanish “Golden Age”. Obviously, any time you call something a “Golden Age”, it’s likely to be a myth (did gold fall from the sky???)

    That said, Spain under the Umayyeds is generally acknowledged–by Jewish and Islamic scholars alike–as unusually tolerant, and as a very good situation for cultural and intellectual ferment.

    Mr. Ben Maimon was lucky enough to be in Yemen when the government was overthrow by the Almohadis–a more radical and intolerant group of rulers. That is the context of the Letter to Yemen, but this is still the exception, not the rule.

    The larger problem with this article is a historical revisionism about the 1948 expulsions. Clearly, Zionism played some role in raising tensions; but there were processes internal to the Arab World as well.

    There were blood libels against Jews beginning around 1800. The first major blood libel was in Damashqus in 1840. (By the way, “blood libel” means first you accuse the local Jews of eating Arab babies, then you try to kill them all.) After this event, 50 years before the World Zionist Congress, the trend accelerated each year–culminating in the 1848 expulsions.

    This makes it unlikely that Tzefardim will be more likely than anyone else to be tolerant toward Arabs. Some choose to remember the history before 1840; some don’t. I have an Iranian Jewish friend who doesn’t want the U.S. to attack her place of birth. I have another Iranian Jewish friend who thinks Ahmeddinijad is Hitler, and has been waiting years for an invasion. It cuts both ways.

  10. James A. Everett says:

    I speak as a progressive and liberal Christian working with Christians, Jews and Muslims on a variety of common concerns. The essential truth is that, despite precious differences, we are all pretty much alike in our basid needs and concerns and must not allow ourselves to become blinded by our narrow sectarian views. This is why it will be necessary to increase the movement in Israel to a more secular government to save each of our religious views from the rest of us.

  11. Apparently there are no depths to which Zionist Jews will not sink in the quest to separate Arabs from Jews. Intent on “breaking up the “sea of Arabs,” they apply similar tactics to alienate Kurds from Arabs. I see their efforts daily in my work. Alas, obsessed with nationalism, the gullible Kurds do not.

  12. bigdoos says:

    Could Mr Shasha please explain, why, inspite of his protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of Mizrachi Jews, ie those who came to Israel from Arab/Muslim countries, are generally supportive of the right to extreme right wing factions of Israeli politics? It is generally attributed to the increase in population of this segment that contributed to the defeat of the Labour government in 1977. To this day, it is common knowledge in Israel & elsewhere that the Likud draws the bulk of its support from the Mizrachi. I use the term Mizrachi as opposed to Sephardi, as the latter come mainly from Southern Europe & the former from Arab/Muslim countries. In this case Mr Shasha’s continued use of the term Sephardi to describe Jews from Arab countries is incorrect & misleading.

  13. Hektor Bim says:

    It is possible the Levantine option exists in America. It no longer exists in the Arab world. It’s important to remember that most Arab nations got rid of their Jews soon after the founding of Israel, even though most of these Jews were citizens and had lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years.

    Also, there were pogroms in medieval Spain, and in medieval Arba states as well.

    Finally, I don’t think the “Zionist Jews” are alienating Kurds from Arabs. I imagine things like the Anfal campaign and the open adoration of mass murderers by their Arab neighbors is doing the trick, not to mention the deliberate denial of citizenship to many Kurds in Syria.

  14. bernard g says:

    FredJ ask for example of claims that Arab-Jewish emnity is age-old
    How about this from Mike Huckabee:
    “This conflict isn’t new. It has been going on since all the way to the time of Abraham. And it’s not going to be resolved any time in the immediate future”.

  15. SocraticGadfly says:

    Isn’t part of the reason Sephardic Jewry never had a “reformation” simply that the Arab world in which it existed never had one, either? So, it’s not that Sephardi had some magic insight that the Ashkenazhi world missed, but rather, that Sephardi were behind the curve of world development.

    I mean, Tibetan/Lamaistic Buddhism didn’t face the need for a “reformation” until 1959, after all. (I’m not glorifying the Chinese takeover, but too many Richard Geres of the world glorify the pre-1959 theocracy that ruled Tibet.)

  16. goolam_d says:

    Attacks on Jews were post-colonial fallouts that had begun AFTER the Zionist/colonial agenda in Palestine had fallen in place. The second world war is also an example of events independent of colonil ambitions for Palestine.

    These Arab Jewry and Arab Christendom are being described as an embittered minority. What is being ignored is that they also speak the whole truth about the Jewish situation in the Middle East. i.e. Imperfect but mostly harmonious. The truth can never be propoganda.

  17. goolam_d says:

    Arab Jewry were not systematically moved from Arab lands. Till today, the prominence of the zionist movement in Morrocco is well known. You’re also ignoring that Arabs non-Jews were systematically turned into a nation of refugees in a much more direct and sinister way.

  18. Hank Roth says:

    Arab Violence Against Israelis

    There is the popularized myth that Palestinian violence is a direct result of Israeli occupation and settlements in Judea and Samaria.

    Palestinian militants, both FATAH and HAMAS are terrorists who direct their violence against civilians. They kill Jewish babies. These organizations did not come about because of Israeli occupation of Judea and Samaria.

    These terrorist groups were founded when the Judea and Samaria (“West Bank” and “Gaza”) were under the control of Arabs, not Israel. Yet, the Palestinians claim there would not be a need for what they call “defensive” operations if there was no occupation. This is just another false claim by Arabs since Israel did not occupy the West Bank or Gaza prior to 1967.

    They hate the Jews and they want Israelis to get out of Israel. They want the Jews out of the Middle East. They want the Jews out of this world. And that wouldn’t satisfy them. Even if there were no Jews left anywhere, they would still hate the Jews.

    More http://pnews.org/ArT/ZuLu/ADV.shtml

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  21. Gibson Block says:

    Here’s another one:

    Anti-Zionism Sephardic Style

    “Political extremism characterized small groups of Sephardic Jews even in their original countries… Iraq in particular had a communist party that contained relatively large numbers of Iraqi Jews (and Christians), perhaps because they believed – foolishly – that a communist regime would create conditions under which they would no longer be inferior in status to Muslims.”

    “Sephardic communism has benefited from the sponsorship of a number of Israeli Post-Zionist academics, most notably Tel Aviv University Professor Yehouda Shenhav. Born Yehouda Shaharabani to Iraqi parents who immigrated to Israel, he later changed his name to a less obviously Sephardic one. He teaches Marxism and anti-Zionism to Tel Aviv University students and edits the Marxist Israeli journal Theory and Criticism.”

    “His ideas are reincarnations of those of the old dead “common cause” once promoted by the Communist Party in Palestine from the 1920’s onward. ”

    “Perhaps the leading American Sephardic anti-Zionist is one David Shasha, a follower of Shenhav. Born in the U.S. of Syrian Jewish descent, he attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush and he is today the director of something called the Center for Sephardic Heritage. Mainstream Sephardic institutions maintain no ties with Shasha and his center.”

  22. British Ambassador David Reddaway in Ankara, President Abdullah Gul’s visit to be found in England in November, said: “This visit will be a very important element of a defense. Look forward to the signing of the agreement before or during visits,” he said.

    British Ambassador David Reddaway in Ankara, Ankara, residence, today began a 2-day 4 Naval Systems Seminar gave the opening reception.

    The reception, representatives from the Ministry of Defense and the Defense Industry Undersecretariat, ASELSAN and HAVELSAN British companies participating in the seminar with BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, MBDA UK, Thales UK, BMT, Ultra Electronics, 50Astrium Griffon Hoverwor, Babcock, Link Mircotek, Salt Separation, Aish Tech Ltd., Cambridge Pixel, Mission Krafit joined with executives from other companies.

    Reddaway, in his speech at the front desk, United Kingdom Trade and Investment Defence and Security Agency is one of the sponsors of the seminar stated that a large British companies, has expressed his pleasure to see it. Strategic relations with Turkey was very important for them that expresses Reddaway, seminar, defense and industrial relations between the two countries is an important step for the development, he said. Reddaway, companies, stated that a long-term partnerships set up to promote.

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  25. Xristina says:

    Supporting Israel isn’t just the perspective of Ayn Rand but also groednud in common sense. Since Israel is a an extension of Western civilization we have a moral obligation to support countries that reflect open societies like ours.In Israel proper every citizen (regardless of race, religion or creed) enjoys rights and liberties protected by the country’s constitution while the country is surrounded by despotic Islamist regimes. Despite Israel being predmoniately Jewish, it is still mostly secular. When was the last time you heard of a gay pride parade taking place in Gaza, Mecca, or Tehran? They take place regularly in Israel and prostitution is legal there too.A proper government is one that is geared to protect individual rights in which Israel’s government does just that (albeit not consistently). As far as Zionism is concerned, I know little about it except most who reel against it do so because of its call for a Jewish state.With your support of the Palestinian “right-of-return” (so called) and talking up their defenders (like Miko Peled) it is not only Israel you condemn but also what the country stands for and you claim to support: Western civilization.

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